Old School

Catchy country tunes filled with humorous lyrics and memorable melodies is what Toby Keith does best. He’s done party songs, like his ode to the red Solo cup, revenge tracks like “How Do You Like Me Now,” patriotic songs like “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue,” and everything in between.

From his debut in the ‘90s, to now, Keith has kept his fans happy with his signature style of country, penning many of his own songs. Putting his personality into the music is what has set him apart and lead to enormous success. Over the years he’s racked up 42 Top 10 hits, 32 No.  1 hits and sold more than 40 million albums worldwide.

Keith told the Laughlin Entertainer that songwriting has just always been in his blood.

“It’s just that God blessed me to do that better than anything else,” Keith said. “Whatever talent is there, it always came pretty easy to me. Now I had to learn, you know. I tell anybody that wants to be a songwriter, ‘You know, just try to write something every day and if you’re good enough at it or if you have the talent it will develop.

“I probably wrote 80 songs, or 100, before I wrote one that somebody said, ‘that’s not bad.’ And then you just write another 100. But I was just obsessed at an early age with writing songs, so I just kept on hammering away until I learned what I think are many, many different ways to attack a song and write it. I feel like I reached a point in my career where I didn’t write bad songs anymore. I wrote songs that were better than other ones, but I was just a great idea away from a great song. If I had a great idea I knew before I wrote it that it was going to be pretty dang good.”

Many agree that what has flowed from Keith’s pen has been “pretty dang good.” He was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2015 and is a 2021 inductee into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame.

“I’ve got shelves and shelves of awards but none of them mean as much to me as the songwriting awards,” Keith said. “I went to New York in 2015 and was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame and now I’m getting inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame, so that’s the stuff that means the most to me.”

Some other meaningful moments in his career were working with two of country music’s legends and his personal heroes.

“The couple guys that I really wanted to dig into were Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson,” Keith said. “I recorded Merle’s songs and Merle recorded mine, we did a duet, we sang together and shared guitars many times, and he was kind of a music father figure to me. And Willie was always gracious and as many five-week number ones as me and him have had in our careers, neither one of us had ever had a six-week Billboard No. 1. When I talked him into doing the duet on ‘Beer For My Horses,’ we actually ended up with a six-week Billboard No. 1. We both have monster songs that have stayed five weeks, which is gigantic, but to have us both on there and it be both of our biggest charting record, it was pretty sensational.”

Since his self-titled debut album in 1993, Keith has put out 20 studio albums, two Christmas albums and five compilation albums. His latest, “Peso In My Pocket,” dropped just last week, but prior to that, Keith said he hadn’t planned on putting out anymore new albums because he found that the industry had drastically changed in the past decade.

“About four or five years ago I had kind of given up on even recording albums, I mean periodically maybe just throw something out there for my fans, but as far as playing the game and getting airplay and all that, there was just a point in this last decade where the door was pretty much shut on the past,” Keith said. “I put out a really good album in ’15, but I was having trouble getting airplay all of a sudden. I mean I’ve been No. 1 airplay several times in my career, so I was used to knowing what I was doing and knowing what songs I needed. Well I went and put an album out, and it just got resisted. It was just like, ‘we don’t play this kind of music anymore.’”

With the amount of success he’d had over the past two decades, Keith wasn’t about to let the industry change his style.

“Of course I wasn’t going to go change my music to try to get airplay so I just said, ‘Well, I already have enough trouble picking what songs I want to play in the show. I could do four and a half hours of hits and I only get an hour and 50 minutes. Screw it, I’ll just go tour,’” he said. “I started spending my winters vacationing and enjoying my life. Then all of a sudden, during COVID, five years later, about five influential radio programmers started calling my manager and they said, ‘we need something from you, we need Toby to do an album.’ I said, ‘Why would we want to spend money to go make an album they won’t play?’ And he said, ‘Oh they’ll play it.’ And he used the words ‘comfort music.’ He said, ‘They need familiar voices.’”

When the world was facing so much hardship, some comfort was exactly what the people needed so Keith tapped into his songwriting talent once again to provide some musical relief.

“With them calling, I said, ‘alright I ain’t got nothing to do.’ So I went, wrote some songs, made an album, turned it out and by God, they’re playing it,” he said.

He started writing the album while in Mexico during the pandemic, which lead to the title track, “Peso In My Pocket.” Then he returned to the states and continued putting together the songlist.

“When I came back from Mexico I had two, three things written and two or three things half written,” Keith said. “So when I came back, everything was still closed down, and I’ve got a lake house and it’s got a golf course there and my boats are there so I can get out on the water. So we moved into the lake house and then when I’d run in the morning I’d work on my songs. Kenny Greenberg’s my producer and he found a couple songs and there was a couple of songs I’d always wanted to record that I’d put off.

“Then one of my heroes John Prine passed away. Haggard and Willie are the ones that put the fire in me and then I found John Prine and he’s the one who taught me to be fearless and let it flow. So I did and it stepped me up another notch somewhere along my career,” Keith said. “He passed away, so for about three weeks when I’d run, I’d just listen to the John Prine channel because we’re never going to get anymore great music out of this guy. So this song came on (‘Take A Look At My Heart’) and I’d never heard it before, and I thought, man, that’s the one. So I wanted to do it on my album to pay tribute to him.”

Keith plucked songs from several different avenues without trying to force a pattern on the album. Every track is unique, but there are a few classic Toby personality pieces, which he said are his favorites on the album.

“There’s a whole bunch of stuff on here and they’re all different,” Keith said. “Usually the songs I like on the album aren’t the ones people are going to pick for singles. I did a real straightforward, funny country song that I absolutely love called ‘She’s Drinking Again.’ Every time I sing it — like if we’re just sitting around at the lake and someone throws me a guitar and I sing it — people are singing it the next day. They’re coming up on the golf course or the lake and they’re singing that song. It’s like an earworm, it just gets them. Then I’ve got the lake song, ‘Thunderbird.’ I mean that’s the kind of stuff I love to do. I have more fun writing those kind of songs than I do any kind of song.”

Keith said he’ll play a couple of new songs when he hits the stage at the Laughlin Event Center Saturday, Oct. 23 (7 p.m.), but he knows the fans are there for the hits, so that’s what he will deliver. He loves to get the crowd pumping and enjoys his time on stage just as much as the fans.

“I love the fans and the energy they bring. That really recharges your mundane battery,” Keith said. “You can be sitting backstage, kind of having a piss poor day, and you get ready and get your boots on and you walk up and as soon as the lights drop they’re like, ‘come on daddy!’ So then you go out there and for two hours you just wish it lasted four hours.

‘We’ve been having monster crowds — just enthusiastic, eager, fun-loving. It’s been a nice return. It’s been more like it was in 2005. I think we’ve developed such a strong following over the years that they know what to expect when they come. They know we’re just going to raise hell and party and say everything that no one else says and does, and we’re just going to keep piling hits at you.”